When World War I broke out in Europe, the 39-year-old Maurice Ravel volunteered as a truck and ambulance driver for the army. At the time, he was working on Le tombeau de Couperin, a solo piano work in the style of a French Baroque suite. In its initial conception, the work paid homage to François Couperin, the court composer for Louis XIV and a master of solo harpsichord music. (In French tradition, the word tombeau—literally “tomb”—was used to describe musical collections of a memorial nature.) Ravel did not finish the work until 1917, by which time it had acquired a more personal meaning, with each of six movements honoring friends killed in the war.
In 1919, the same year that the piano version of Le tombeau de Couperin received its first performance, Ravel transcribed four of the movements for chamber orchestra. The oboe, so prominent as a solo instrument in the Baroque era, has an outsized role in Ravel’s orchestration, starting with the fluid melody of the Prélude. Ravel dedicated this movement to Lieutenant Jacques Charlot (the godson of his music publisher), who died in battle in 1915.
The second movement, a Forlane, is based on a lively and flirtatious couple’s dance that entered the French court via northern Italy. Ravel sketched this movement before the war and subsequently dedicated it to the Basque painter Gabriel Deluc, who was killed in 1916.
The oboe returns to the fore in the Menuet, a French dance distinguished by its stately, three-beat pulse. Ravel dedicated this section to the memory of Jean Dreyfus, whose stepmother, Fernand Dreyfus, was one of Ravel’s closest confidantes during the war.
The Rigaudon, originally the fourth of six movements, serves as the finale of the orchestral suite. It pays tribute to two family friends of Ravel: Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, brothers killed by the same shell on their first day at the front in 1914. The Rigaudon is the most unabashedly upbeat movement of the four, with fast outer sections surrounding a more reflective melody introduced by the oboe. When faced with criticism that this memorial music was too cheerful, Ravel purportedly responded, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”
Patrick Castillo ©2017